On the 30th of August, Beirut’s latest album, The Rip-Tide, was released. Beirut hadn’t taken an unusually long break between albums or anything: Beirut’s previous EP had been released in 2009, but it wasn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea (it was markedly different from his previous Balkan/French chanson sounds – it was recorded with a 19-piece Mexican funeral band!).
But nonetheless, this new album still had quite some hype surrounding it, and it doesn’t disappoint. There are elements of some of his previous sounds in its different tracks – for example, redolences of A Flying Club Cup in ‘Port of Call’ – to entirely new sounds, like his slightly-Sufjan Stevensy sound (unusual for Beirut, who’s better known for his musico-cultural experimentation) in ‘Santa Fe’. But this is not going to be a track-by-track analysis of Beirut’s music, or the minute fluctuations in his general sound: artists experiment, and we are grateful for that. If Beirut had cut 3 albums & 5 EPs all with the same type of sound and theme running through them, it would have made this world a little less interesting. Sometimes you miss, sometimes you hit – this new album is very definitely the latter.
What really interests me are the conditions under which this album has been produced, and what it suggests about some of the best contemporary American bands making music today. An article/interview in The Guardian two days ago drew comparisons between the way in which Zach Condon sealed himself off to write this album, just as Justin Vernon (frontman for Bon Iver, who released their own loooong-awaited second album just a few months ago) did for his first album (For Emma, Forever Ago). The Guardian writes:
When Condon began working on the new record, he moved for six months during the winter to a log cabin in upstate New York. “Chopping wood, cooking duck…” he laughs. “I got really lonely.” It was an idea stolen almost wholesale from Justin Vernon, who famously wrote the first Bon Iver album in similar conditions. (“We joked about it. I said: ‘Sorry, man, I ripped you off.'”) But it allowed him to continue to find a new outlet for his imagination and escapist tendencies, adopting the habits and persona of an American backwaters recluse even while writing a record about home.
It got me thinking a lot about the sentiments that underlie a lot of this music coming out of America. Though they aren’t mentioned in The Guardian article (probably because they didn’t shut themselves up in a log cabin to write their music), Fleet Foxes are another band which channel that kind of log-cabin, lonely-mountaintop sound. There seems to be a move away from the sounds & beats that characterize a fast-moving urbanity (neon lights and all that) to sounds that characterize lonely night drives through sparse desert lands, or to guitars strummed softly and slowly beside a campfire. This is music made to echo against night-skies and to reverberate through empty unobstructed land (nature).
धर्म – Dharma
I spent one amazing – hellish, turbulent, but beautiful – summer in India, dealing with power cuts every other hour, so with no television, no Internet, nothing – nothing except for one Fleet Foxes album & Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. It was a hugely solipsistic experience – I had to be entirely immersed in something besides my own puny life, and so I immersed myself in American backwater-beauty: melodies, words, poetry. Fleet Foxes’ album (in case anybody’s wondering, their debut album – Fleet Foxes) and Kerouac’s novel seemed to fit together perfectly, as if the one had been written for the other. Fleet Foxes’ layers of sparse, sometimes a capella, harmonies echo the mountaintop meditations and winter-forest hymns of Kerouac; there seemed to be some kind of necessary relationship between songs about ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ and Kerouac’s own Desolation Peaks.
(A man called Vincent Moon in Paris did these amazing Take-Away Shows, all of which he posted up on a website called La Blogothéque. The whole idea behind these ‘take-away shows’ is that artists play their songs in exotic locations, usually with sparse instrumentation & in a public space (lots of them are played or sung on the move through streets and whatnot). Most of them are, like this one, taken in Paris; all of them have beautiful colouring. Fleet Foxes performing ‘Sun Giant’ & ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, the latter in the Grand Palais.)
In the novel, Kerouac ends up working alone in a log cabin, on ‘Desolation Peak’; the novel takes a new turn in its probe for understanding of the consciousness. To me, the Kerouac of then doesn’t seem too different from the Zach Condons & Justin Vernons of now. There seems to be this theme of straining to get away from the city, from the pressures of society and modernity (then & now), that springs up in American culture every now and then. Pangs of American asceticism.
To be in some river-bottom somewhere, or in a desert, or in mountains, or in some hut in Mexico or shack in Adirondack, and rest and be kind, and do nothing else, practice what the Chinese call ‘do-nothing’. I didn’t want to have anything to do, really, either with Japhy’s ideas about society (I figured it would be better to just avoid it altogether, walk around it) or with any of Alvah’s ideas about grasping after life as much as you can because of its sweet sadness and because you would be dead some day.
The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac